31 May 2006

Climate Change: US News & World Report Asks "Can We Live With It?"

In another example that Global Warming is making the grade, this week's mainstream news weekly, US News & World Report features a cover story asking the question: "Global Warming: Can We Live With It?" The lead article, by correspondent Bret Schulte, whose interview with Al Gore also appears in this issue, suggests we may not have a choice. "Adapting to climate change is not only necessary, experts say; it's unavoidable," writes Schulte. "But our existing survival techniques will face a host of costly new stressors. Flash floods will require better drainage in cities. On the coasts, artificial wetlands and sea walls may become more common, and development could be restricted or require tougher building codes, with higher elevations."

Schulte profiles King County Executive Ron Sims, who has made fighting the effects of climate change a central theme for much of his 10-year tenure as county executive, according to the article. "Elsewhere," writes Schulte, "preparation for global warming has taken lots of different shapes. The fact that many families have chosen not to return to New Orleans, whether it's because of higher insurance rates or fear of a Katrina repeat, is a form of adaptation." He also cites New York City's Staten Island "Bluebelt," a buffer made of existing and artificial wetlands, and London's efforts to prepare "for more heat waves like the one that killed 35,000 Europeans in 2003, as well as summer droughts and winter floods."

Schulte concludes that for many, "the next debate in the climate-change debate is not why the planet is warming, or if we can stop it. It is this: How do we live with it?"

In a related article in the same issue, Marianne Lavelle writes about the business opportunities presented by climate change, focusing on the insurance industry's efforts to grapple with global warming. Two weeks ago, American International Group (AIG) followed others such as SwissRe, in adjusting for climate change risks, announcing that is "actively seeking to incorporate environmental and climate change considerations across its businesses."

AIG vice president Chris Winans told US News & World Report, "We don't make the leap where we are saying that we endorse the idea that hurricanes are a direct result of global warming or that global warming is a direct result of human activities, but we take the possibility seriously."

Pick it up at your newsstand or read it here: US News & World Report

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30 May 2006

New Economy: Paulson Treasury May Be Good for Environmental Investments

Today, President Bush announced his nomination of Henry (Hank) Paulson, Jr., CEO of Goldman Sachs, for U.S. Treasury Secretary, succeeding outgoing secretary John Snow. While at the helm of Goldman, Mr. Paulson piloted efforts to move the firm in a green direction (see my earlier post: Goldman's Inner Environmentalist). Paulson, head of Goldman Sachs, has also been the chairman of board of directors of The Nature Conservancy.*

President Bush, at a press conference this morning, said, "The treasury secretary is responsible for recommending and implementing policies dealing with taxes, financial markets, federal spending, trade and other issues affecting the health and competitiveness of the American economy."

"Mr. Paulson had turned aside at least one overture from the White House," according to The New York Times, "and accepted the post only after being assured that he would play a central role in setting policy."

Mr. Paulson, in his acceptance of the nomination, said, "Our economy's strength is rooted in the entrepreneurial spirit and the competitive zeal of the American people and in our free and open market. It is truly a marvel, but we cannot take it for granted. We must take steps to maintain our competitive edge in the world."

A strong pro-growth, pro-environment voice may be just what is needed to affect policy adjustments that will catalyze private sector investments in climate change mitigation and alternative energy.

(*In the interest of full disclosure, I am currently employed by an organization with which Hank Paulson has been associated, while secretly coveting a job at Goldman...)

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29 May 2006

Climate Change: Easterbrook's "Case Closed"

The once-skeptical Gregg Easterbrook, visiting fellow of the Brookings Institute and author of the contrarian's environmental history A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, has just published an essay called "Case Closed: The Debate About Global Warming is Over," in the journal Issues in Governance Studies.

His main points: there is consensus in the scientific community that "artificial global warming," which Mr. Easterbrook uses to distinguish human-induced warming from that caused by the natural greenhouse cycle, and that "action against artificial global warming may not prove nearly as expensive or daunting as commonly believed."

"Greenhouse gases are an air pollution problem," Easterbrook argues, "and all air pollution problems of the past have cost significantly less to fix than projected, while declining faster than expected."

Easterbrook says that the "research is now in, and the scientific uncertainty that once justified skepticism has been replaced by near-unanimity among credentialed researchers that an artificial warming world is a real phenomena posing real danger."

But perhaps his most fascinating arguments are around what to do about it. Readers of this web log will find much that is familiar in Easterbrook's suggestions:
1. Kyoto is dead and pointless at this point;
2. While significant uncertainties do still exist, enough is known to make warnings "imperative even when much remains unknown";
3. Some effects of global warming may actually be good – Easterbrook cites the potential for increased agricultural productivity in some countries as a net-positive;
4. The main dangers are real and problematic, including "significant extension of the range of equatorial diseases," "sea-level rise," "melting ice," "altering the biology of the sea," and "misery in poor nations"; and, finally,
5. The "Big Thought that's missing from the global warming debate: there may be an optimistic path that involves affordable reforms that do not stifle prosperity."

I am thrilled to have some of my blog's main, practical themes supported so eloquently by Easterbrook, especially as he represents himself as a skeptic-turned-believer. Easterbrook lays out compelling reasons "to shift gears from the overly ponderous Kyoto approach to a market-driven, innovation-based approach" to address global warming before it sets significant climate change in motion.

Easterbrook distinguishes between the two, thusly "Global warming and climate change sound like the same thing, but are different. If the world became warmer while climate remained the same, the change would be manageable. In that scenario, the benefits might outweigh the harm, Significant climate change, by contrast, could cause awful problems." He goes on to say that "we do know that stable climate is associated with civilization, while climate change is associated with mass extinctions. We would be fools to tempt that equation."

"So what are we waiting for?" Easterbrook asks. Indeed.

Download the complete essay here: "Case Closed"

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24 May 2006

Climate Change: Sea Level Flooding Scenario Maps

Thanks to fellow blogger Coby Beck at A Few Things Ill Considered for pointing out this interesting (I'd say "fun," but that would be really cruel) link for an interactive climate change sea-level rise scenario mapping tool using Google Maps as its base. It shows a range of between 0m and 14m, but be careful, as Beck says, "14m is not the map to generate if you are trying to guess beachfront property to leave your grandchildren, but it may be a plausible science fiction scenario for AD 2400+."

Play around with it here: Flood Maps

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22 May 2006

Climate Change: Investors Call for Meeting with ExxonMobil Board

In a joint letter to ExxonMobil executives, seventeen top U.S. pension fund and other institutional investors representing $658 billion in assets called for a meeting with independent members of the ExxonMobil board of directors. They are increasingly concerned about the future of the company in which they are heavily invested, claiming that ExxonMobil has not recognized their exposure to climate change impacts. They are troubled by the company's failure to "to manage the transformation of ExxonMobil from a 20th Century oil company to a company that will meet the world's energy demands within carbon constraints in the a 21st Century."

Pension fund trustees from seven states, New York City, and eight other major institutional investors with over 110 million ExxonMobil shares worth an estimated $6.75 billion made the request for the meeting this week. All are members of the Investor Network on Climate Risk, (INCR) "a network of institutional investors and financial institutions dedicated to promoting better understanding of the financial risks and investment opportunities posed by climate change" (from INCR web site).

The group includes treasurers from six states (Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Maine, Vermont), the California State Controller, the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), the New York State Comptroller, New York City Comptroller, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, Walden Asset Management, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Sheet Metal Workers Pension Fund.

A press release from the INCR quoted California State Treasurer Phil Angelides, also a trustee of CalPERS and CalSTRS, who said, "Shareholders deserve to know if the companies they own are going down the prudent path -- adopting environmental practices that will enable them to survive and thrive in a world of increasing environmental concern and regulation - or whether they are following a path that will damage both our environment and our bottom line."

"The growing risks of climate change and the skyrocketing gas prices consumers are facing highlight the need for increased investment in alternative energy sources," according to Mr. Angelides. "Exxon Mobil must come clean with shareholders about the company's risks and demonstrate the company is ready to face the environmental challenges of the future."

The Investor Network on Climate Risk also called on the world's largest automakers to address their role in global climate change and the effects it could have on their profits.

Thus far, no response has been released by ExxonMobil. However, in its 2005 Corporate Citizenship Report, one finds the following link to the company's Carbon Disclosure Project, which reads
ExxonMobil recognises that the potential impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on society and ecosystems may prove to be significant, although scientific evidence remains inconclusive. To address these risks we are taking actions to reduce energy use and emissions in our own operations as well as to help customers use our products more efficiently. Our actions include investments and strategic planning that address emissions, as well as industry-leading research on technologies with the potential to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in the future. ExxonMobil has also been a leader in supporting scientific research to address the well-known scientific uncertainties and gaps that limit understanding of climate change today. Ongoing support for scientific research is critical to improve society's ability to assess climate risks and provide essential input to advise public policy.

In addition, the report claims "It is impossible today to foresee the long-term implications of climate change for any business. Only a few nations, mostly in Europe, have implemented regulatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions. Estimates for allowance prices under carbon trading regimes remain highly speculative and dependent upon further developments, particularly regarding future regulations. ExxonMobil will respond to these uncertainties and developments using our traditional approach: disciplined planning and investment, financial strength, efficient and reliable operations, and research and development."

The letter from the Investor Network on Climate Risk takes ExxonMobil to task for not "making any significant investment in new energy producing technologies" and for a lack of "strategic analysis of how these limits [to CO2 emissions] could impact the market for selling ExxonMobil's major product -- oil."

Read the release from the Investor Network on Climate Risk

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21 May 2006

Climate Change: Another View, the "CO2: We Call it Life" Campaign

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) has produced two 60-second television commercials "focusing on the alleged global warming crisis and the calls by some environmental groups and politicians for reduced energy use."

The ads, which will air in 14 U.S. cities through the end of May, are timed with the release of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," which opened in theaters this weekend. The ads can also be seen as a rebuttal to the Environmental Defense/Ad Council spots about which I wrote two months ago: Wake Up Call for Climate Crisis?

According to their web site, CEI "is a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government. We believe that individuals are best helped not by government intervention, but by making their own choices in a free marketplace."

View the spots here: CEI streams

Read more about it here: Planet Ark and Washington Times

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18 May 2006

Climate Change: U.S. Senate Dems Offer Clean EDGE

Yesterday, Senate Democrats put forth what they call the "Clean EDGE Act of 2006," which they hope will lay the groundwork for energy independence and a domestic clean energy industry. According to reports, the bill will "create good jobs, control gas prices, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and help curb global warming."

The new legislation will create a new Clean Energy Investment Administration, modeled after the Small Business Administration. The new agency will channel billions in federal loan guarantees to renewable energy and related industries.

According to the Apollo Alliance, the major focal points of Clean EDGE Act of 2006, include
Reducing Our Dependence on Foreign Oil: The legislation seeks to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 40%, cutting U.S. oil use by nearly 6 million barrels a day in 2020.
Transitioning to Clean Home Grown Fuels: The Clean EDGE Act of 2006 aims to increase the number of flex fuel vehicles that can run on both gas and ethanol to half of all new U.S. vehicles sold by 2020. Furthermore, it mandates an increase in the number of gas stations selling alternative fuels.
Supporting Clean Energy and Good Jobs: It also acts as a catalyst for clean energy and good jobs by setting a national “renewable portfolio standard” that requires 10% of all electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020.
Ending Giveaways to Big Oil: The bill pays for itself by ending some subsidies to big oil and restricting certain oil industry incentives including royalty waivers. Furthermore, the legislation would make price gouging a federal crime
Investing in American Jobs and Industry: The Clean EDGE Act will create a clean energy investment administration to help deploy renewable power and related manufacturing technology. It also invests in education programs to develop a skilled domestic workforce, to create good new clean energy jobs.

Critics of the plan, such as Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, claims "This latest plan is a sprinkling of good ideas, a heavy helping of bad ideas and distractions, and a pathetic absence of any effort to increasing American energy supply," according to a statement quoted in the New York Times.

Read more about it: Reuters and New York Times

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15 May 2006

Climate Change: Warming set to 'devastate' coral reefs, BBC Reports

A report by BBC News today quotes a study by an international team of researchers who examined reefs in the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, where "a warming event in 1998 killed much of the live coral."
The group found the oceanic reef had experienced fish extinctions, algal growth, and only limited recovery.

Details have been published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The 1998 event saw Indian Ocean surface temperatures rise to unprecedented levels, killing off - or 'bleaching' - more than 90% of the inner Seychelles coral. Coral bleaching has been described as a vivid demonstration of climate change in action.

'[Bleaching events] are becoming more frequent and are predicted to become more severe in coming decades. They are directly linked to increases in sea surface temperatures,' said lead author Nick Graham, of the University of Newcastle, UK.

Read more at: BBC News/Coral Reefs

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12 May 2006

Climate Change: British Firm Quantifies Biofuel Contribution to CO2 Reduction

According to Reuters World Environment News, a British company has quantified for the first time carbon dioxide emission savings made through the sale of biofuels.

Greenergy, which supplies biofuels, claims that more than 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions have been saved during the first quarter of 2006.

"The savings, independently assessed by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management, are equivalent to taking more than 50,000 family cars off the road for the three month period," says the firm.

"The use of biofuels, rather than fossil fuels, is intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions which are believed to contribute to global warming.

The UK "has set a goal that five percent of all motor fuel sold in Britain must come from renewable sources by 2010."

Read more: Planet Ark

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07 May 2006

Climate Change May Spread Diseases to New Areas

The Washington Post reported on Friday that a number of experts have found increased links between the spread of infectious diseases and climate change.

"Global warming -- with an accompanying rise in floods and droughts -- is fueling the spread of epidemics in areas unprepared for the diseases, say many health experts worldwide," according to the Post. "Mosquitoes, ticks, mice and other carriers are surviving warmer winters and expanding their range, bringing health threats with them."

Doug Struck, writing in the Post, cites cases of West Nile virus turning up in Canada, and of malaria reaching mountain populations in Africa and Latin America, as well as northern extensions of range for dengue fever and Lyme disease. "West Nile virus," writes Struck, "never seen on this continent until seven years ago, has infected more than 21,000 people in the United States and Canada and killed more than 800."

According to a 2002 report of the World Health Organisation (WHO), "climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4% of worldwide diarrhoea, and 6% of malaria in some middle-income countries." But that report also noted that "small changes, against a noisy background of ongoing changes in other causal factors, are hard to identify."

Nevertheless, recent findings by the WHO confirm that "the first detectable changes in human health may well be alterations in the geographic range (latitude and altitude) and seasonality of certain infectious diseases -- including vector-borne infections such as malaria and dengue fever, and food-borne infections (e.g. salmonellosis) which peak in the warmer months."

The WHO recognizes there may be additional "public health consequences of the disturbance of natural and managed food-producing ecosystems, rising sea-levels and population displacement for reasons of physical hazard, land loss, economic disruption and civil strife," although these "may not become evident for up to several decades."

As early as 1992, experts have expressed concern about the possible affects of climate shifts on infectious diseases.

According to Robert E. Shope of the Yale Arbovirus Research Unit, "The infections that will spread with climate change have some commonalities. They are focal, and their distribution is limited by the ecology of their reservoir, be it arthropod, snail, or water. They usually have a two- or three-host life cycle, meaning that in addition to infecting people, they infect a vector and frequently also a wild vertebrate animal host."

In such cases, the vector, host or both can be the reservoir, Shope wrote in a chapter of Global Climate Change: Implications, Challenges and Mitigation Measures, published by The Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He noted fourteen years ago that the agents "will probably survive by moving in a polar direction, north in the Northern Hemisphere, in order to find a temperature range that is ecologically permissive."

Still, not everyone agrees there is a relationship between climate change and mosquito-borne diseases. The "Green Consumer Guide" reported that Professor Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute and Harvard University, points out "the complex variables regarding diseases such as malaria, dengue and yellow fever."

"'It is naive to attempt to predict the effects of 'global warming' on malaria on the mere basis of temperature,'" Reiter comments. "'The natural history of all the mosquito borne diseases is extraordinarily complex, and the interplay of climate, weather, ecology and the biology of the vector and its hosts defies simple analysis.

A 1998 conference held by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention examined both sides of the argument. Ultimately, according to an article in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, there is a need for cooperation in researching the question. They called for a focus "on public health intervention measures that are properly implemented and [that] can mitigate the effect of global climate change on infectious disease incidence and geographic spread."

The Post article adds new voices to the fray, including the Canadian families of victims of West Nile and Dr. Paul Epstein, who worked in Africa and is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. He suggests that scientists are not "worried enough about the problem." Dr. Epstein's report, which was released last November, suggests that temperature changes are an important factor and that it is a mistake to underestimate the links.

Quoted in the Post, Epstein says, "Things we projected to occur in 2080 are happening in 2006. What we didn't get is how fast and how big it is, and the degree to which the biological systems would respond."

The jury may be out on whether there are direct links between climate change and the spread of disease or how lasting these will be. Meanwhile, however, we may all be wise to increase our protection against mosquitoes as we head into the summer months.

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04 May 2006

Social Entrepreneurs: What is Base of the Economic Pyramid?

Base of the Economic Pyramid or BOP for cute and short, is a growing movement designed to alleviate poverty while generating sustainable profits for companies both large and small. The concept was popularized by Stu Hart and C.K. Prahalad. It is an idea for where we are right now.

As Robert S. Katz of the World Resources Institute says, BOP practitioners are social entrepreneurs who "seek a middle ground where the private sector's power is brought to bear on persistent social, economic, and environmental problems."

Katz, writing in GreenBiz.com (a web publication for which I also write) this past March, makes the point that "social entrepreneurs need to be grounded in reality." The reality is, non-profit development -- and, for that matter, non-profit conservation -- is proving that it just doesn't pay. In developing countries, even places with burgeoning economies like India and China, the largely rural poor are cut out of the economic equation. They "need money to send their kids to school, buy medicines, and put food on the table," as Katz writes.

Katz points to two social entrepreneur-led organizations as examples of entities that are trying to right this wrong. He cites KickStart, not the Chuck Norris-led organization that uses Martial Arts to empower youth, but a Kenyan company formerly known as Approtec. Founded by "former aid workers searching for an alternative to top-down poverty alleviation strategies," the company develops and promotes technologies, including oilseed presses and water pumps known as "MoneyMakers," which help farmers increase yields and income using recharge waters.

Aavishkaar is another company discussed by Katz in his GreenBiz article. The rural India-based micro-venture capital fund provides capital to create, in the words of Upendra Bhatt, and quoted by Katz, "an enabling ecosystem of entrepreneurs, whom no one else is willing to fund."

Katz, a research analyst at the World Resources Institute focused on BOP business approaches to poverty, is an editor and contributor to NextBillion.net, a web site and blog devoted to "development through enterprise."

As Katz sees it, there is "a vital new approach to business and to ecosystem management. Natural resources are still -- and will remain for the foreseeable future -- the primary assets of the rural poor. Proper Management of these assets is critical not only to those who rely directly on agricultural land, or forests, or freshwater or oceans, but also of course, to all of us."

For those of us seeking an alternative to "top down" strategies for improving ecosystem health and well-being, this reminder of the base of the pyramid is timely and welcome.

Read more at Base of the Pyramid.

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03 May 2006

Social Entrepreneurs: Kiva's Peer-to-peer Microfinance Network

My growing interest in microfinance and microcredit models got a boost recently when a friend turned me on to Kiva, a web site that lets people like you and me connect with small businesses in the developing world. Modest loans of $25-100 go a long way in countries like Honduras, Bulgaria, Uganda, and Cambodia.

The site is easy to navigate and well-organized around businesses and their status: In Need, Active, and Raised. Through brief profiles, you can quickly get a sense of the entrepreneurs and their business ideas. Status updates, including entrepreneurs who have paid back their loans, are also available through the site.

Take Elizabeth Omalla (pictured), for example, who received and paid back her $500 loan to start a business as a fishmonger in Tororo, Uganda. Through her loan, Kiva reports, Ms. Omalla got access to a better market and the profit enabled her to buy goats, cow, pigs, chicken and send her children to school. She writes in one journal entry,
I am a widow with eight Children and other three relatives who stay together with us in our home. Altogether, twelve (12) people have benefited from this money of the business. I have been dealing in fish mongering. I started by doing retail business until when I got a loan money that promoted me to a wholesale trader.

Kiva collaborates with local organizations to screen entrepreneurs, assess their businesses, and administer your loan. According to the website, Kiva claims its partners average an historical repayment rate of over 96 percent.

By choosing a business on the website and lending money through an online transfer (credit card or PayPal), investors sponsor a business, thereby helping the world's working poor get on the ladder of economic improvement. Optional monthly email updates during the course of the loan, usually 6-12 months, keep you informed about the progress of your loan and the small business you have sponsored. Finally, as loans are repaid, you get your original loan money back or you have the option to turn it into a donation.

Kiva is the brainchild of Matthew and Jessica Flannery. During several month's work in rural Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, Jessica, then on staff with Village Enterprise Fund (VEF) and Matthew, a filmmaker, were "struck by the success of hundreds of small businesses started by VEF, the incredible impact of those businesses on their communities, and the vitality and potential of those businesses' entrepreneurs."

Time to take that $25 per week we spend on getting caffeinated over The Economist and turn it into micro-lending power!

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